2 years after a cultural exchange, Utah students mourn, worry about counterparts in Gaza

Dec 29, 2023, 10:10 PM | Updated: Dec 30, 2023, 1:34 pm

AMERICAN FORK — Two schools, 7,000 miles apart. Two years ago, students in Mr. Dye’s world history class were part of a cultural exchange program with kids in Gaza.

“Our students had a chance to chat with these children in Gaza, get to know each other,” said Brigham Dye, a world history teacher at American Heritage School in American Fork.

There were only two rules, no talking about politics or religion.

“Other than that, we wanted to share all we could with each other,” Dye said.

The students would send videos to each other about themselves and their lives.

“They spent a lot of time on their videos, some edited it so much and they tried to make us laugh, it meant a lot to them and it was really fun to see,” said Maren Dewey, a junior at American Heritage School.

Over the semester, the students halfway across the world grew an affection for each other.

“As it went on it started to feel like less of an assignment and more of an opportunity,” said Camden Norton, a junior.

The exchange program is something the students still remember fondly. As does Dye, who connected with his counterpart in Gaza, Mr. Mohammed, over having a daughter the same age at the schools they taught at.

“I realized woah, this is a real man over there on the other side of the world,” Dye said. “Who is a teacher, I thought about him making lesson plans the night before and facing the stresses of teaching and having his daughter there with us. He became a brother to me in that moment.”

As winter set in both in Utah and Gaza, the students started to realize that most of the roofs over the kids’ heads in the Jabalia Refugee Camp were made of sheet metal, and many had holes in them.

The class made a video to go with a GoFundMe to help the children’s parents repair the roofs and have a dry place to stay.

“As it progressed they started showing us their homes, the conditions and it got that much more real,” Dewey said.

Norton edited the video and felt proud to use his video editing hobby in a way that could help the students in Gaza.

“It just really made you think, I want to help,” Dewey said. “So once there was a fundraiser I was like, absolutely.”

Two years went by, then suddenly those kids were back on their minds. Gaza became an intense war zone, the Jabalia camp was struck several times. Fixing roofs felt like a far-away mission for Dye and the students.

“I wish that was their problem today because I’m picturing craters where those houses were before,” Dye said.

He learned two of the children they had communicated with had died in the past two months. He’s not sure of the status of the other students or teachers at the school.

“When you see someone’s face and you talk to them, you realize that they are human just like you and you feel connected to them,” Dye said. “You pray for them. In a way you didn’t before.”

As the death count keeps rising in Gaza, the American Heritage students are constantly thinking of the kids they had the chance to talk to.

“It really kind of hit me. These kids that I had actually messaged and seen, some of them have passed away” said Brigham Bangas, a junior. “It’s kind of crazy.”

Aubrey Rowen, another junior who participated in the cultural exchange program, said she grew to see the kids in Gaza as no different from her and her classmates.

“They’re just kids, you know?” she said. “They had no part in choosing to live in a war zone, some of them just wish it was over, they don’t want to live like this.”

The students remember talking to their Gazan counterparts about their hopes for the future, they remember the kids saying they wanted to be a doctor or engineer. Those memories have made the ongoing events in Gaza harder to watch.

“We have no idea where they were headed, what they could do,” Dewey said.

As the war goes on, they are still hoping for the best for their friends.

“It’s really unfortunate to know you knew that these kids had dreams and they had hopes for their world and what they had a chance at one day,” Norton said. “It’s heartbreaking to know some of them don’t have a chance at that at all. Some of them don’t have a chance at a future at all.”

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2 years after a cultural exchange, Utah students mourn, worry about counterparts in Gaza